Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Slyboro Cider- An Interview with Dan Wilson

Dan Wilson is the owner of Slyboro Cider, a local farm operation that produces an excellent European style cider. Hicks Orchard, which is Dan's farm, is located in Granville, NY about 4 1/2 hours north of NYC. It is close to the southern tip of Lake Champlain and a stone's throw away from the Vermont border.

Currently, Jimmy's No. 43 is the only restaurant in NYC to be serving these ciders.

Dan, could you give us some background on your farm?

I am a second generation farmer with a background in art and psychology (perfect foundation for a career in horticulture). My wife and partner Susan keeps us all together- including two kids and various other animals. Our esteemed winemaker Andy Farmer rounds out our winery operation. You can find more information on slyboro.com. That site is just a front page now while our designer is fleshing it out at this very moment. More will come soon. Our main site hicksorchard.com has more stuff up.

When did you first get into the cider business?

Hicks Orchard is New York's oldest "U-Pick" orchard. We recently celebrated our 100th year of inviting the public to our farm to share the harvest of tart cherries, berries and apples. Since 1974 when my folks bought the farm, we've been focused on building the business around the desires and expectations of our customers wanting a day on the farm, including fresh apple cider production, farm store, cider donuts, fudge, barnyard activities for the kids, school tours, etc. Apple season feels alot like putting on a show; lots of preparation backstage, a cast of workers to train, promotion to orchestrate, all around the attempt to create an experience for our "guests". While it is gratifying to work this way (especially seeing the course of generations of visitors who make an annual trek to the farm to re-create a family tradition), the farm has a life and arc of it's own, not always in line with Susan's and my more basic desires for creative expression, our interest in food and wine, as well as our need to grow and diversify the farm business into its most sustainable direction.

We started experimenting with ciders about seven years ago, learning from all the older locals whose grandfathers invariably had "a barrel in the basement" (it was always referred to using this exact phrase, some kind of code, I think). Many of the recommended recipes produced some really nasty stuff, better for removing paint than consuming. We learned that there is a deeply embedded tradition of cider through this region, but the knowledge and production was pretty much wiped out during Prohibiton, and never recovered after its repeal. However, during this period of basic research, we sampled enough well-made cider to sustain our confidence that truly good fermented cider was possible. We worked with the Cornell enology department to refine our technique and started fermenting each of our many apple varieties singly, especially focusing on the older, heritage types, to discover their strengths and weaknesses, in order to gain more control over the finished, blended, flavors. A fateful trip to Quebec one summer introduced us to a new product called ice cider, similar to ice wine, which was so glorious that we knew we had to try this too.

Before our winery and tasting room opened in July of 07, we entered our ciders in several international wine competions just to see where we stood in the grand spectrum of ciders out there in the world. We were stunned by our success- seven entries in three separate competions and we medalled seven times! Including a Double Gold medal in the Eastern International for our sparkling Hidden Star, and a Concordance Gold medal from the Indy International for our ice cider, called Ice Harvest.

We are currently selling from our tasting room and a few local venues. We're looking for more outlets, and would appreciate any suggestions!

We have relationships with several farms near you, such as Bardwell Farms in Vermont and Three Corner Field Farm in Shushan, NY. Is this region a traditional agricultural area? Is it going through a revival? Is it one valley or micro-climate?

I think that, primarily because of geography, with rugged hills and fertile valleys, most of the farms up here are small. We've remained relatively undiscovered by developers (until recently), so land prices have been low compared to Vermont, next door to the east, and the Lake George to Saratoga Springs corridor, to the west. The agricultural industry in this area is struggling, though still viable, so the infrastructure (tractor dealers, large animal vets, Cooperative Extension, etc.) is still in place. If I'm not mistaken, our Washington county still produces more milk than the entire state of New Hampshire. We're also reasonably close to major markets. For all of these reasons, and I'm sure others I'm missing, these farms are conducive to entrepreneurial experimentation. We also seem to have an exceptionally well-educated, well-travelled group of growers here who have set the bar quite high for quality and innovation.

How would you describe your sparkling cider? At 9% it seems more of a sparkling wine than a typical bolted cider. =

As a matter of definition, "hard cider" is an apple product, sometimes made from apple concentrate, that is 7% alcohol or less. The federal definition of fruit wine includes a provision for wines made only from apple, allowing them to be called "cider". So, technically, our ciders are wines, ranging from 8 to 13 percent, but they are purely from apples, and, importantly, don't fit the generally held assumptions people hold for "apple wines", in terms of sweetness and flavor. So, cider. Our ciders are comparable to several traditional cider styles from England and France.

What is your favorite season on the farm?

I'm blessed to live a life so deeply connected to the change of seasons, and also to live in an area that (for the time being) expresses all four seasons distinctly. The orchard requires work year round. We're currently pruning, as weather permits, and when it doesn't, I'm in the winery. Each day I can choose which project will get my focus, and at the end of each day I can actually see what I've accomplished. Not too bad. My favorite season is the one I'm in.